TEPCO: Will Someone Turn Off the Lights?

Jake Adelstein and Stephanie Nakajima report on the Japanese utility after Fukushima

This article is from the archive of our partner .

‘Jump in a nuclear reactor and die!’

Those were the words directed at the chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) by one angry man at the tense stockholders meeting held today on June 28. It captured the sentiment of many people in Japan who are demanding the company take responsibility for the meltdown on March 11, at the nuclear power plant TEPCO managed and owns. The meeting inside did not run smoothly but meltdown was avoided. Outside the meeting, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Riot Squad held back the right- and left-wing demonstrators as well as a contingent of anti-nuclear protesters. Tsunehisa Katsumata, the chairman of the firm offered his apologies. He was re-elected as chairman the same day. He is a very good apologist. In 2003, after it had been widely reported that TEPCO had falsified safety data at dozens of reactors he also spoke for the company saying, “I wish to begin by expressing regret for the recent cases of misconduct at our company, which have eroded public confidence in the nuclear power industry.”

Recent events have not helped restore that public confidence.

Every evening NHK, the BBC of Japan, announces the radiation levels for major cities in the country as regularly as the weather report. Another nightly news staple is the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the monolithic corporation which has a monopoly on electric power in the greater Tokyo area and operated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant where at least three nuclear reactors melted down, irradiating the entire nation and forcing thousands to evacuate. The meltdown began on March 11, the day a 9.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Japan. For the first day, TEPCO strongly denied any problems at the plant but by March 12, reactor one had already melted down. Each subsequent day brings more news of radiation leaking from the plant and mistakes, cover-ups, and corporate malfeasance by TEPCO. Slowly voices within and outside the Japanese government are beginning to suggest that it’s time to dismantle the company and put their nuclear plants under government supervision; books highly critical of the firmare becoming best sellers.

TEPCO has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the nation of Japan: cronyism, collusion, gentrification, corruption, weak regulation, and entropy. Despite being in the spotlight for the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, TEPCO continues to engage in questionable labor practices, and has escaped bankruptcy in closed-door meetings with politicians, and through denying culpability has shifted part of the reparations burden onto taxpayers – deeds which testify to the extent to which TEPCO still has plenty of political power, if not as much nuclear power.

After an expose in the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, last week TEPCO admitted that 69 of its plant workers can’t be located for radiation checks—30 of them were found not even to have had their names recorded. This raises questions about how these workers were recruited, paid, monitored for radiation exposure, or vetted before entering the site of the nuclear disaster. Former and current workers within the plant testify that many of the hired hands are yakuza or ex-yakuza members. One company supplying the firm with contract workers is a known Japanese mafia front company. TEPCO when questioned would only say, “We don’t have knowledge of who is ultimately supplying the labor at the end of the outsourcing. We do not have organized crime exclusionary clauses in our standard contracts but are considering it.” The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has asked the company to “submit a report” on the matter.

TEPCO is often asked to submit reports. In fact, nine days before the meltdown, on March 2, NISA issued TEPCO a warning for their failure to inspect key pieces of equipment at the plant, and wanted a report on the matter by June 2. The report does not appear to have been received yet.

A dark history

For months, TEPCO has been insisting that the cause of the nuclear disaster was the “unprecedented” tidal wave which flooded the emergency generators, delaying cooling. Katsunobu Onda, the investigative journalist who wrote the recently reissued expose TEPCO: The Dark Empire (東京電力・帝国の暗黒 ) in 2007, felt a strange sense of déjà vu when listening to the claim that this accident was “unforseeable” (soteigai) at the initial press conferences. “It was the exact same phrase trotted out in July of 2007, when a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Niigata resulted in leakage of radiation from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, and a fire which TEPCO was unable to quickly extinguish,” he notes. The possibility of a tidal wave causing a nuclear meltdown was not unforeseeable either; members of the Fukushima Diet (the local legislature) had warned the company as early as 2007.

TEPCO, originally a public utility until it went private in 1951, has enjoyed over half a century of lax government regulation, a default monopoly status in the power industry (and the security that accompanies such a position), and finally an increasingly untouchable image, fortified by every scandal that goes virtually unpunished.Despite its many accidents, TEPCO has managed to shield itself over the years from rigorous investigation and censure. It has done so by wining and dining the Japanese media, spending the equivalent of $294 million in advertising, and hiring retired National Police Agency bureaucrats and former METI officials as “special advisors.” Using political connections, threats, and a complacent press, they have managed to stay in business.

In June of 2000, Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese-American engineer who had worked at the Fukushima reactor one site, blew the whistle on TEPCO’s decades of cover-ups and dangerous practices in a letter to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).

The letter, which details some of his work at the Fukushima plant as a inspector for GE which helped build the plant, states: “I was performing a visual inspection on the steam dryer (a critical part of the nuclear reactor) at the Fukushima site Unit One for TEPCO… The dryer was inspected and found cracked to the condition to where it was required to be replaced by a new one at an extensive cost to Tokyo Electric Power Company. I have inspected numerous BWR steam dryers and never discovered a dryer damaged to that extent.” Then, the most damning evidence: “We submitted (video) tapes to TEPCO for METI, edited with visual cracking intentionally omitted per TEPCO request.”

Sugaoka refused to comply with the request to edit the tapes himself, noting that this was a criminal offense. “I wasn’t willing to lie. That made me a troublemaker. Lying was standard practice at TEPCO, and maybe for most of the nuclear industry.”

This letter did not prompt action by the government until 2002, when an investigation revealed that for over 2 decades, the utility had been consistently falsifying data at its nuclear power plants: specifically, 29 instances of altered data pertaining to cracks in devices in the core structure of at least 13 nuclear reactors. Regarding the delay, the METI minister at the time lamely remarked, "Taking two years (for the government investigation) is too long in light of common sense. It should have been done more swiftly".

After the 2002 scandal, the nuclear reactors were shut down for inspection. Unfortunately, this is about the extent of the action taken to address TEPCO’s delinquency. NISA which is part of METI, didn’t file any criminal complaints against TEPCO, on the suspiciously irrelevant grounds that the cracks had been fixed. The president, vice president, and chairman resigned over the scandal; a sacrifice that seems less weighty when considering all then went on to serve as advisors to the company. President Nobuya Minami’s replacement, TsunehisaKatsumata, would serve for only five years and later resign over the 2007 Kashiwazaki-Kariwa accident. Katsumata was promptly reinstated as chairman.

At that time, the earliest cover-up was thought to have dated back to only 1986; however, in a later 2007 investigation, TEPCO admitted to an additional 199 occasions “involving the submission of false technical data to authorities.” Unfortunately, whatever reforms put in place after these investigation were too late; only a few months later, a powerful earthquake hit Japan’s northwest coast, causing malfunctions at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. The quake caused radioactive leaks, burst pipes, and fires, for which the facility was inadequately prepared. TEPCO later admitted that the company knew the fault line under the plant was capable of causing a magnitude 7 quake. The plant was created to sustain one up to only magnitude 6.5.

Beyond the usual media posturing and the occasional sacrificed executive, TEPCO was not held accountable for these incidents, as the power industry is subject to only a 3-year statute of limitations on such offenses.

Sugaoka scoffs at the company’s use of the word “unprecedented” when describing the recent disaster. “TEPCO knowingly used a defective, misaligned piece of equipment for over a decade and doctored video footage showing massive problems. Is it any surprise that the reactor would eventually break down? The containment vessel was never designed to withstand an earthquake. Reactor one is 40 years old, it should have been shut down ten years ago. What was the Japanese government thinking when they gave them firm permission to extend the reactor life for another ten years? And that TEPCO had the audacity to ask, should tell you how close their ties are to the Japanese government.”

‘A rough bunch’

Sugaoka also says he saw signs of yakuza ties among his colleagues at the facility. “When we’d enter the plant, we’d all change clothes first. The cleanup crews were staffed with guys covered with typical yakuza tattoos, a rough bunch,” he says. Police sources confirm that one of the companies currently supplying the plant with workers, M-Kogyo, headquartered in Fukuoka Prefecture is a front company for the Kudo-kai, a designated organized crime group. A former yakuza boss notes, “we’ve always been involved in recruiting laborers for TEPCO. It’s dirty, dangerous work and the only people who will do it are homeless, yakuza, banished yakuza, or people so badly in debt that they see no other way to pay it off.” The regular employees were given better radiation suits than the often uneducated yakuza recruits, although it was the more legally vulnerable yakuza and day laborers who typically performed the most dangerous work.

A TEPCO executive, speaking on conditions of anonymity, described the TEPCO working hierarchy:staff employees working at the nuclear reactors enjoy special benefits, safer conditions, and more stringent radiation level checks, while hired workers at the power plants were considered sub-human. “If you voice concerns about the welfare of temporary workers at the plants, you’re labeled a troublemaker, or a potential liability. It’s a taboo to even discuss it.”

TEPCO has not handled the nuclear disaster well, neither in the real word nor on the PR front. Initially, TEPCO denied any meltdown occurred. On May 12 they confirmed the suspicions of outside experts, that a meltdown had already taken place, and that it probably happened within the first few days of the earthquake. This was prompted by the notification thatmembers of an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation teamwere coming to Japan to conduct their own investigation. TEPCO “discovered” that not only had a meltdown occurred, but also a “melt-through” (fuel rods had melted and also breached the containment vessel). The former president Masataka Shimizu, resigned “to take responsibility”, but that may not be enough to quell the growing anger of the Japanese public.

The extent of the damage is tremendous. 90,000 people have been evacuated already after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami created this nuclear situation; the number is expected to rise as early as this week, as radiation “hotspots” outside the 20 km evacuation zone emerge. Although 30 percent of Japan’s energy is generated at nuclear facilities, the consequences of the disaster have spurred talk of abandoning the country’s nuclear programs altogether. All of Japan is asking to what extent should we continue to entrust this private corporation with highly dangerous energy sources?

The investigation

Though it is still hard to say, TEPCO may finally face some serious consequences for this international crisis. As TEPCO’S cover story falls apart, even some top-ranking bureaucrats within the Japanese government are going on the record saying it’s time to turn off the lights at TEPCO. Shigeaki Koga, a bureaucrat at METI was asked on July 15 to step down over his persistent calls for TEPCO to be forced into bankruptcy and undergo a wholesale restructuring of the company. His recently released book, The Collapse of Japan’s Central Administration, which also details plans for dismantling TEPCO has become a national best-seller. Tadashi Maeda, advisor to the prime minister, has also called for all nuclear energy to be nationalized.

The Tokyo Prosecutor Office Special Investigative Division has begun a preliminary investigation into TEPCO on charges of criminal negligence resulting in death and/or injury. Meanwhile, the Labor Standards Bureau is investigating them for violations of the Labor Laws. A Ministry of Justice source close to the investigation said on conditions of anonymity, “It seems very clear that TEPCO knew that an earthquake would probably damage the reactors and result in a meltdown. They failed to take preventive measures and their response in after-math was negligent, insufficient, and under Japanese law, they will be held criminally responsible. The question is who will take the fall and how far the investigation will go.”

A special advisor to the Japanese government is skeptical of the motives of the Tokyo Public Prosecutor’s office (TPO). “For them this is a chance to regain public trust in their office which is at an all-time low. The conviction this year of a former prosecutor for forging evidence destroyed their credibility. Right now, everyone hates TEPCO. If they successfully prosecute the executives for criminal negligence—they’ll be heroes in the public eye. The question isn’t whether people will be arrested for criminal negligence; the question is how far will the investigation go. Will it include investigations into violations of the political funding acts, the kickbacks, the bribes, and the politicians who have benefited from TEPCO’S malfeasance? It could be a chance to break apart 'the nuclear mafia' in Japan, though I doubt it will get that far.”

The TEPCO executive we spoke with expressed similar sentiments: “I hope the Japanese government breaks up the company as suggested by Koga-san, because I’d like to be able to tell people with pride who I work for. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, I’m ashamed to say the name of my employer. We ruined Japan.”

Jake Adelstein is an investigative journalist, consultant, and the author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter On The Police Beat In Japan. He is also a board member of the  Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project Japan, which combats human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children in the sex trade. Stephanie Nakajima is a writer and managing editor at the Japan Subculture Research Center. She has previously written on TEPCO's stranglehold on the Japanese media for Number 1 Shimbun and diverse topics such as the fashion model exodus in post-quake Tokyo and environmental issues

Photos by Getty

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.